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March 13, 2009 at 8:18 AM

M’s defense was “above average” in 2008

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Many thanks to Larry Stone for pulling OT duty filling in for me this week while I was in Philadelphia after the death of a close family member. Larry even broke the story yesterday about the M’s signing of Chad Cordero to a minor-league deal that could — if his surgically repaired shoulder progresses — lead to him being the team’s future closer. In other words, the team appears to be addressing an area of perceived weakness. That’s part of what today’s blog is about.
I raced back here to Arizona from Philly yesterday, connecting through Atlanta, in order to make it to the Mariners game so I could chat with none other than John Dewan, creator of both STATS Inc and Baseball Info Solutions , author of The Fielding Bible and one of the gurus of defensive statistics in baseball. We talked about his Fielding Bible Awards last year on the blog while lampooning the Gold Gloves selection process. Dewan, pictured above, is touring some spring training sites to promote the second volume of The Fielding Bible and it’s a must-read for those wanting to better comprehend where defensive statistics are headed.
Dewan has worked closely with sabermetric founder Bill James over the past 30 years and it was James who helped Dewan hone his Plus/Minus system of rating baseball defenders.
There were many topics we touched on and which you will be reading more about from me in coming weeks. But for the purposes of today’s blog, my main focus was on the 2008 team rankings for defense that are contained in The Fielding Bible’s pages. Dewan uses a new stat called “Defensive Runs Saved” to see how teams measure up. The stat is a combination of all the other defensive metrics Dewan has been developing over the years. Those metrics are taken and converted into theoretic “runs” a player saved his team based on plays made or not made in the field.
It should come as no surprise that the World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies led the pack in 2008, finishing with a +78 score in defensive runs. In other words, the Phils “saved” themselves 78 runs through their defense. The AL championTampa Bay Rays finished 9th out of the 30 teams with +26 — a vast improvment by that club over previous defensively-attrocious years.
But here comes the shocker for me. And I’m guessing, for some of you as well.
Coming in at No. 13 — out of 30 major league teams — were none other than the Seattle Mariners. Yes, you heard that right. According to Dewan, whose metrics are some of the most advanced in the field, the M’s were an above-average defensive team during their 101-loss season. Seattle was also an above-average defensive squad for the AL, placing sixth of 14 teams. The M’s scored a +14 in defensive runs, only slightly behind the No. 5 Boston Red Sox, who scored +18.
Hear me ask Dewan about that by clicking right here.
The Mariners scored a +25 at third base, second-most runs “saved” by any team at a single positon (Toronto saved 29 runs, also at third base). So, that’s almost all Adrian Beltre. In right field, the M’s were a +15, largely coming after Ichiro switched over.
“The individual players, when they’re that good, can make the difference,” Dewan said. “Beltre and Suzuki’s limited time in right field counted for four extra wins.”
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A quick word on the methodology Dewan employed. Using computers that track every game and every pitch, Dewan and his team assign zones of coverage and rate fielders on plays they make versus ones they don’t make compared to others at their positions. They get credit for making plays that at least one other player at their position missed during a season, while losing credit if they miss a play at least one other player made at some point. This Plus/Minus system is tallied up at year’s end and good fielders wind up with a score pn the “plus” side of zero, while below average players have a minus total.
“Plus/Minus” is the major metric used in tallying up scores for Dewan’s new defensive runs saved stat. Other metrics used by Dewan, to a lesser degree, in calculating “saved” defensive runs include those that deal with bunt defense, outfield arms, catcher’s arms and the performance of pitchers when they are behind the plate, and the ability of middle infielders to turn double-plays.
So, when scores from all the metrics are added up — with Plus/Minus influencing the heaviest percentage of the score — the total is converted into a run total “prevented” by a team. As I said, the Mariners did slightly above average, coming in at +14 and ranking at No. 13 in all of baseball.
Now, this raised some interesting questions for me. And it also gets my mind turning when it comes to how these M’s will fare in 2009. We’ve heard all winter long that a serious goal of the new regime led by GM Jack Zduriencik is to improve the M’s defense. That appears to have been done, at least in the outfield. Dewan loves the addition of Franklin Gutierrez in center field, the shift of Ichiro back to right and the addition of Endy Chavez in left. Thinks it could be “the best outfield defense in baseball.”
Here’s a thought, though.
If defense wasn’t the team’s biggest liability in 2008, then logic would seem to dictate that there’s probably a lot less room for tangible impact on the Mariners as a whole by upgrading this particular area. The Mariners were, according to Dewan, a slightly above average defensive team. So, stats like Dewan’s, if accurate, do bring up some questions about the current team’s priorities. I think it’s more than fair to discuss whether the best way to attack and “fix” the 101-loss squad from last year was to make the biggest perceived improvements in the one area of the game the Mariners were actually pretty good at.
Let’s take that a step further. We all know this team was one of baseball’s worst in terms of power hitting last year. There are more established offensive metrics, like OPS, slugging percentage, isolated power — or just plain home run and doubles hitting — that prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. The Mariners were also lousy at getting on base and scoring runs. They were an all-around joke offensively.
So, why is it that when you ask most casual and statistically-inclined Mariners fans about the team’s biggest improvements this off-season, everyone almost universally points to the defensive upgrades? Why does everyone start staring at their feet when the topic of any offensive improvements comes up? Probably because the perception is that there hasn’t been a whole lot of offensive improvment to talk about.
Hey, don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with trying to make a team better off defensively. I’m just wondering whether it’s really enough to avoid another last-place finish. So far, I’m not all that convinced. And so, I asked Dewan just how much of an improvment the M’s could expect, from a won-lost standpoint, based exclusively on those outfield moves — adding Gutierrez and Chavez and moving Ichiro to right — that he’s so high on.
“About two or three wins,” he told me.

Dewan talked about Chavez and Gutierrez saving the team 20 runs next season. Under his formula, every 10 runs saved equals a win. So, that’s two wins. Dewan also hopes Ichiro can save another 10 runs by playing in right field all year as opposed to center, where Dewan feels he’s just an average defender based on the numbers from 2008.
So, essentially, they’re good for “two wins” and maybe three. So, just to be sure, I asked Dewan the following:
Q: Could you qualify that? Does that mean that if they won 62 games last year, they’re going to win 64 this year?
Dewan: “Yes. Yes.”
Q: That’s basically as good as it gets unless they improve other areas?
Dewan: “Right. All things being equal, by improving their defense in the outfield, it’s going to mean about 20 runs or more when the whole season plays out.”
So, if the M’s tread water everywhere else, we’re looking at much the same in 2009. Even with an expected pitching boost from a healthy Erik Bedard, this offense is going to have to get a whole lot better for the M’s to come close to a .500 season.
But let’s not get too carried away here. Two to three wins extra based off a defensive move or two is actually a lot. So, the M’s are to be applauded for achieving even that. It’s just that they had so much catching up to do.
An optimist might say that since the M’s were better than perceived defensively last season, their glove woes might not be all that tough to “fix”. And that, the offense woefully underperformed in 2008. The M’s are clearly hoping that’s the case. That the team pegged to do so much in 2008 actually has the talent to do much better things than the numbers it put up.
In any case, it’s a start. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Mariners certainly aren’t being remade into a championship squad overnight. But you’ve got to use something for the foundation. And let’s face it, Beltre likely won’t be around to save everyone’s hind quarters again come August, so the M’s might as well get a head start on some of that glove upgrading.
It’s just that, right now, what Dewan’s stats show is that the M’s are solidifying a part of the team that arguably might have been the strongest last year. And if that’s the case, there will have to be other improvements, naturally, down the road before anyone (I’m whistling innocently) calls this team a contender again.
Going through the Mariners position-by-position in 2008, Dewan explained how they came up with an above average team score. The biggest reason, again, is that the team had Beltre at third base all year and switched Ichiro back to right field in June.
But that still doesn’t explain why most observers felt the Mariners were a lousy defensive team. The first name out of Dewan’s mouth in this regard belonged to shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, who contributed almost exclusively to the team’s minus-13 score at that position.
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“One of the weaknesses was the shortstop,” Dewan said. “And I don’t know what the perception in Seattle is. The perception used to be that Betancourt was a very good shortstop. But our metrics are showing that…in 2008 he graded out as the worst shortstop in baseball.”
Other areas the Mariners lost ground in came at catcher, where they scored only a minus-4 overall.
“Hopefully Jeff Clement doesn’t catch all that much, or he has figured something out with his throwing arm,” Dewan said, adding that Clement’s failure to throw out any of 18 would-be base-stealers running on him during limited catching duty in 2008 would have cost the M’s enormously over a full season.
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As for Kenji Johjima, Dewan notes that he actually did slightly better from a defensive standpoint in 2008 than in the two prior years, when Dewan figures he was among the game’s worst at his position. But Dewan fears that Johjima’s communication problems with pitchers and struggles with the English language will continue to keep him below average.
The only other notable deficit incurred at any position by the M’s was the minus-6 in left field, where Raul Ibanez played most of the time. But Dewan actually feels that Ibanez is a better defender than he’s made out to be, saying he goes back for balls very well. “Ibanez did pretty well on our metrics, but I actually think Ibanez is a little bit better than our numbers say.”
It’s coming in on balls that he showed problems in the metrics, as anyone who saw some blooped balls drop in front of him can attest. But Dewan said he’d rather have a guy whose problems are running in on balls rather than going back for them because the latter type can limit extra-base hits better than the first group. “I don’t consider Ibanez one of the worst. He’s not great, but I don’t consider him one of the worst like I do Pat Burrell, or Adam Dunn, Manny Ramirez, Jack Cust. I mean, these are guys that are definitely near the bottom.”
Once you take that into account — how one of Seattle’s biggest perceived liabilities in the field may not have been as bad as previously imagined — you begin to see how this team might have been better defensively on a whole.
Seattle evened-out at zero — meaning an “average” defensive score — at first base and in center field. They were a minus-2 at second base, with Luis Valbuena responsible for some of that with putrid fielding late in the season. Dewan feels Jose Lopez is a good second baseman who regressed slightly on the defensive side in 2008 — though he remained strong at turning double-plays.
Anyhow, that’s the rundown. I hope it wasn’t all too confusing. I’ll be breaking it down more in the weeks ahead. These numbers are not perfect. Dewan admits that defensive metrics are not as refined as offensive ones and there is room for error. We’ll get into more of that as spring training progresses. But these also aren’t stats dreamed out of thin air. There is a lot of thought being put into them by people working in and around the game. Some sophisticated technology is being used and some of the data is being sold to teams. No, not all teams. But it’s coming. The momentum is there. And some new technical innovations pertaining to the gathering of these stats will address some major concerns about them and how accurate they are. As a general guidepost, they are already pretty useful. Hope you found this interesting. I sure did.



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